- any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat. Compare with allophone1.
late 19th century: from French phonème, from Greek phōnēma 'sound, speech', from phōnein 'speak'
A speech sound. In speech, as in writing, we express ourselves using words. In writing, each word is made up of letters, and in speech, a word is made up of a series of phonemes. There are 44 phonemes in standard modern English, evenly divided between vowels and consonants. The phonemes in a word do not correspond to the letters with which we write it. For example, the word catch contains five letters: c – a – t – c – h, but only three sounds: c – a – tch.